A single story of Cambodia


I was talking with a colleague yesterday and reflecting on one of the frustrations that I felt when returning home. The TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie summed it up well, and that’s the danger of the single story. Of course, it’s impossible to have a multifaceted story of every place or every person. However, there needs to be an awareness that these exist.

Cambodia’s single story, similar to the one of Africa, is dominated by social ills, negatives, and of course the Khmer Rouge. Of course, the Khmer Rouge is an important part of Cambodia’s history but it was 40 years ago. The way people insist on talking about it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they had missed the fact Pol Pot is quite dead. (I’ve seen his grave. I can assure you he is.)

When I lamented of this single view, my colleague asked an interesting question: “So, what would you want to tell them?”

I’d want to tell you about how wonderful the Cambodians are. I’d tell you about their resilience and diligence and their wit and their welcoming smiles and the initiative they show and their competence. Rather than being the knowledgeable white person bestowing my experience and learning on the impoverished, simple Asians, I’m often humbled (and slightly humiliated) by their kind, helpful attitude in the light of my constant stupidity. And despite this, they never do it with condescension or a look of pity (although they will often have a laugh about it).

I’d want to tell you about the amazing food and snacks and smiles and the cute but mischievous children (like the one who tried to glue my water bottle to the floor). I’d tell you about their intelligence and how they speak with amazing English despite it being a ridiculous language to learn, especially when your first language does not have verb tenses or agreement.

There are so many stories of Cambodia, far more complex and beautiful and tragic and vast than the ones I know or can tell here. And, of course, my perspective is not that of the “authentic Cambodia” (but, as the TED video pointed out, what does that even mean). However, it’d be nice to think that this little blog perhaps helped people move further than the single story.

Traffic rules

Traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of deaths in Cambodia, with most fatalities involving motorcyclists. In 2015, over 2200 people died in traffic accidents in Cambodia, but this has recently dropped to 1780 people in 2017 (however, this could be because the NGO Handicap International wasn’t involved in the data collection rather than a true decline). Drunkenness, speeding and not wearing helmets are among the main reasons for accidents and fatalities.

I have been in a minor crash myself whilst travelling on a night bus. I can tell you, waking up to a bump and sliding down the wooden bed was a rather unpleasant way to wake up. The driver of the other vehicle was injured, but it seemed like he may have been drunk. I still continue to travel by night bus (The reason is the punchline of that old joke: I’d like to die peacefully in my sleep just like my granddad, and not to die screaming like his passengers.)

There are road laws here, and apparently they’re similar to the UK ones (the translation at least uses words like “zebra crossing” rather than the American “cross walk”). Although it does not seem like there are rules most of the time, I have, so far, safely navigated the Cambodian road system, as a pedestrian, cyclist and motorcyclist. So, here is my brief guide to navigating traffic in Cambodia.

Road side

You drive on the right hand side of the road, unless it isn’t convenient or you are overtaking. It is known for motorbikes especially to sneak down the side of the wrong side of the road (especially if they want to make a left turn further up). I have done it and I got caught by the police and fined (whoops!). What is worse is when they fine you, they get you to put your thumb print on your copy and their copy of the receipt. Therefore, you are left with a blue mark of Cain for the rest of the day. So, tip one: don’t do it or at least look out for police (usually marked by a queue of people getting fines).

If there are areas of paving or petrol station forecourts (as they’re usually on corners), these become legitimate roadways during rush hour.

Road priority

Although the rules say that those going straight on have priority over turning traffic, this is not actually the case. The priority generally goes by the size of vehicle. So motorcycle beats bicycle, car beats motorcycle, truck beats car. There are a few exceptions, such as cow beats everything (not because they’re sacred like in India, but because they’re stupid). The inspiration for this post was my actual thought process whilst cycling home. A lorry was pulling out and I said to myself, “he’s big; he has priority.” Indeed, he pulled out.

If you want to signal that you believe you have the right of way, honk and flash your lights. Flashing lights here does not mean they’re giving way. In fact it’s the opposite: they’re informing you they are coming through.

Crossing the road

There may be times when you need to cross the road as a pedestrian. This can be extremely daunting, especially when you first arrive. I had to learn quickly as, when I was here in 2016, I had to cross a busy, four lane (or six lane if you ignore the road markings) road called Street 271 – which is sort of the circular around Phnom Penh and it follows the old flood dyke. Not only did I have to cross it, but I did this during rush hour. So, here are the steps to do it:

  1. Look in all directions. As traffic may be coming in the wrong direction up the side of the street, be aware of this. Also, people often park their motorbikes (and sometimes cars) inside their homes. I once experienced someone drive out of the house I was standing in front of. That gave me a shock.
  2. Wait until it is only motorcycles. Cars can’t swerve as easily. Preferably, there’ll be only one or two motorcycles, but sometimes this ain’t gonna happen.
  3. Make your intention clear. This can be by raising an arm or by making eye contact with approaching drivers. The latter especially helpful to determine that they have registered you. It’s best to do both.
  4. Take one confident step out into the road. As you do, the oncoming motorcycles with move to avoid you.
  5. Keep going slowly but surely. Keep making your intention clear.
  6. Don’t panic. Motorcycles will start driving behind you too, so you will feel pretty much surrounded by moving traffic. (Don’t worry; that’s because you are.)
  7. Remember, they want to hit you as much as you want to be hit by them.
  8. Reach the other side and breathe.

A miss is as good as a mile

The driving mantra seems to be that it doesn’t matter if it’s by a millimetre or a metre, as long as you miss them it’s okay. You’re going to have to get used to this.

The real advice

  • Avoid travelling at night when you can, especially as a female. There are more likely to be drunken people on the road, or driving your tuk tuk!
  • If you think your driver is drunk, get another one.
  • If you’re here for a while try to get a regular, trustworthy driver (ask an expat who has been here for a while if they know any).
  • Using PassApp or Grab is often safer as it gives you details of your driver. Grab has some helpful safety features too, although I’m not sure how well they work in Cambodia.
  • Buy a portable mobile charger. If you know you’re going to be out late, try to make sure your mobile is fully charged.
  • If you do have to be out late, call a friend on your way back home, or keep them up-to-date.
  • Always wear a helmet when cycling or riding a motorcycle (either as a driver or passenger). The latter is a legal obligation, and both are just common sense. You may think you’re a safe cyclist or driver, but it’s everyone else you can’t account for.


Some vocabulary

Here’s your opportunity to learn some Khmer words:

  • motorcycle: moto ម៉ូតូ
  • bicycle: gong កង់
  • car: lan ឡាន
  • tuk tuk: tuk tuk (but more like the first syllable of toucan than took like hook, but Khmer people will understand the westernised version) តុកតុក
  • stop: chop ! ឈប់!
  • turn left: bot chweng បត់ឆ្វេង
  • turn right: bot sdam បត់ស្តាំ
  • $7?! That’s really expensive! Usually from AEON Mall to my house is $4: Bram bee dollar?! Tlai nah! Tomodah, bee Ee-On Mahl do dol pdair knyom bong tlai bourn dollar. [That’s my butchered attempt at Khmer. I’m not going to write it out wrong in Khmer.]

Last fact: learning Khmer has untaught me how to spell motorcycle. I’m so used to calling it a moto (even when speaking in English), I now will drop the “r” and it becomes motocycle. Thank goodness for spell-checkers, eh?

Postcard from Phnom Penh #1

I’m going to try to write more often here, so in an attempt to make the blog post writing less arduous, I thought I would write some shorter, more focused posts about life here in Cambodia.

Psar Chhouk Meas

The market of the golden lotus: it sounds exotic and romantic. If it conjures up a sedate market, opposite a serene pool overlooking rice paddies where water buffalo majestically graze, then it’s very much a misnomer. It is a square, art deco building in the obligatory Cambodian jackfruit-yellow that spills its stalls onto the streets surrounding it. The south side is mainly fruit and vegetable stalls; the north appears to be clothes and homeware. There are long wooden tables, piled with mangosteen, rambutan, pale apples and green oranges, then various greens and herbs and aubergines and tomatoes. Some stalls are just trays on the ground, piled with piles of green and reds and purples.

At the meat stalls, the women, with long shirts and hats that protect them from the sun, occasionally whip their meat with what looks like a mop with extra-long strings, in an attempt to swat away the flies. The chicken stalls merely consist of bell-shaped cages with chopping boards on top. In the cages are the living chickens, on top are the plucked dead ones with their jackfruit-yellow feet sticking in the air. At least you can be assured the meat is the freshest you can get.

In the evenings, the main road is lined with food vendors and BBQ smoke, steam and the smell food fills the air. Nompang (baguettes), Cambodian sausages, beef and pork, rice cakes, steamed pork buns, snails. All you can hear is the low drone of motorbike engines as their riders pull up to grab a snack. There are people sitting on low plastic stools eating their meals.

Serene and sedate it is not; but rather Psar Chhouk Meas, like most Cambodian markets, is vibrant and bustling and charming.

How to order a gas bottle in Cambodia

In Cambodia, kitchens generally comprise of a gas stove fuelled by gas bottles. My one is empty. So here are the steps I took to (hopefully) get a new one.

Step 1: Message Vitou asking what to say

Have a Khmer person give you hints on how to proceed with the process.

Step 2: Write a script

So you can be prepared for every part of the conversation, write out what you might need to say phonetically.

Step 3: Phone various numbers with limited success

You’ve probably been given a list of numbers to ring. Ring them.

Step 4: When someone does finally pick up but doesn’t follow your script, panic and hang up.

The man on the other end of the phone can’t see your script; only you can. So that doesn’t go to plan. Panic and hang up. (An additional step you can follow is pretending you can’t hear him and repeat “Hello?!” four or five times before hanging up. I chose not to.)

Step 5: Phone Vitou

Realise you could have skipped steps one through four and call Vitou.

Step 6: Vitou does it for you

You text him your address and the size of the bottle. Vitou texts back saying he has rung and it is okay.

Step 7: Try not to cry

You may be jet lagged and frustrated and feel like an idiot, but it’s not time to feel sorry for yourself. No, my eyes are watering because the air conditioner has dried them out, okay.

Step 8: Pray that the gas arrives and watch the road like a weirdo

Anxiously await the arrival of a gas bottle. However, you don’t actually see him.

Step 9: Vitou rings you to say the man is at your house

Step 10: Pay the man

The Promethium gas seller deserves his wages. Give him his money.

And, hey presto! You have fire!

Cambodia take two

On 23rd July, 2018, at around 10:40 at the morning, I will, with all things going to plan, be on a plane that is flying to Bangkok (via Russia). After a day of decompression in Bangkok, I will take another short flight down to Phnom Penh. I will disembark and begin the next two-year stage of my life: living in Cambodia.

Last time, I lived, for most the time, in Siem Reap working in a small school serving impoverished families. I taught English as a foreign language and conducted some training sessions. (In reality, I ate a lot of Fullo with the kids and the teachers, and spent a lot of time playing games and being silly.)

The school where I taught 2016-17

This time round, I will be living in the capital, Phnom Penh. I will also be teaching English iGCSE in English, following the English curriculum, to students already speaking English. I’m working at HOPE School, which is a school for children of Christian NGO workers. Without this infrastructure in place, many of those trying to address many of the issues that Cambodia faces would not be able to do their work. Sadly, as a relic of the Pol Pot’s regime and the terrible genocide he inflicted on his country, Cambodia does need foreign input for now in order to support the development of the country.


Obviously, three weeks isn’t a long time. I’m constantly asked whether I’m excited but emotions are a bit more complex and strange to sum up in one word so I also sound a bit hesitant and insincere when I say it. I’m also aware that I have to moderate my response to that question. I can’t seem too eager to ditch you guys, lest offense is taken. Another reason may be because I’ve been living with the idea of going back for six months now, so it just seems inevitable and a done deal. In the midst of organising and list making, pragmatism tends to rule, emotions tend to be put aside for a bit. But yes, I am excited.

I’m also really looking forward to the long haul flight. It’s weird but I love them. You’re forced to sit down, whilst being insanely productive (travelling 6,000 miles is a massive achievement in my book). Furthermore, you can watch films and people bring you food. It’s amazing. After a crazy academic year, this inforced pause is something that will be much needed.

I do anticipate my arrival in Asia will feel really weird. The moment I smell the humid, sweet Asian air will be mostly filled with relief. It’s been a bit of a long wait and the tough end of term has meant I have felt like may never get there! I’m a little worried I may cry. I’ll have to wait until I’m alone for that, though.

Packing and sorting is generally going well. I just need to work out what I’ll keep and what I won’t. The main issue is books: I have a teetering pile of Bibles and Khmer children’s books that I want to take. I may have to limit these as I only have a 27kg luggage allowance. But time is pressing on! It’s crazy how the time has disappeared.

The pile of books

Admin bits

Keeping in touch

If you wish to keep in touch, there are quite a few ways. This blog is an obvious one! Make sure you hit subscribe to get all the latest news.

I also have a public Facebook page.  I’m hoping to use this for regular on-the-go updates and Facebook Live videos. You can find it at www.facebook.com/thomasincambodia. Hit the link; click the like button! This blog is synced to post in the Facebook everytime I write a post. It’s probably the easiest way to have everything together.

I also have Skype and an email address. Send me a private message if you want to receive these.

For my Christian friends, I will be sending out a prayer letter. If it’s something that you want to receive, let me know.


I’ve had a lot of comments from people saying they’d love to visit me. South-East Asia is amazing, so by all means pop over to my side of the world. However, I will be working so it may not be feasible to fit in visitors (my holidays, for instance, don’t follow the British school holidays; my longest holiday is during the wet season which will be the worst time to visit). If you are determined to visit, let me know and see what we can work out. Just don’t be offended if you aren’t able to see much of me.

However, I will happily give advice, link you up with people (like Vitou!) and answer any questions about travelling around Cambodia if you want.


Things I have learnt… 2

I previously wrote an arbitrarily numbered listed about things I have learnt about Cambodia. Well, I’m still learning. Some of the list are things I’ve learnt more about or things I thought were general Cambodian “things” but are slightly more nuanced. Read the previous post, as it will help with the clarifications.

  1. Cafes and restaurants have someone to help park your moto… in Phnom Penh. This is not always the case in Siem Reap (most customers are tourists who arrive by tuk tuk/ the areas are solely pedestrianised for certain times of the day, the streets are wider and less busy, etc.)
  2. You get given water on arriving at a cafe or restaurant… in Phnom Penh. (Tourists usually carry their own water and avoid drinking water from an unknown source. The water and ice restaurants provide are perfectly fine.) There are some restaurants that do it automatically in Siem Reap, and it’s perfectly fine to ask.
  3. Cambodians cheer before you take every sip of your beer (so you spend a lot of time clinking glasses).
  4. Cambodians can drink a lot when at weddings.
  5. Cambodians sleep anywhere and often in groups. They’ll sleep on straw mats, in hammocks; inside, outside. Sometimes there are quite a few people sharing the same straw mat. (I had to share a pillow at one point. It wasn’t a particularly big pillow either.) It’s like one big sleepover.
  6. The road rules are very similar to in the UK. However, in the UK, they are (mostly) followed.
  7. A Cambodian meal will consist of rice and usually three other dishes. You share it as a group or family. There’s usually a meat dish, some fish and some vegetables, maybe a soup as well.
  8. Often the vegetables will go with a particular meat. The Cambodians will tell you, “oh the cucumber, you eat with the fish…”. I’m not sure how they know or remember these things.
  9. In Cambodia, you can eat with your hands, a spoon or with chop sticks. Often vegetables, like lettuce, are used as wraps or to pick up food, too. I’m amazed at how competent they are in eating in such varied ways when I often feel like my hands have somehow stopped working and I get food everywhere (I stained quite an expensive white shirt the first time I wore it this week).
  10. Some Cambodians think westerners only eat bread. Or at least, that question seemed to be asked a lot (this was in the provinces, so they were perhaps not as used to westerners as in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap).
  11. You are often asked whether you’ve eaten yet as a greeting.
  12. Cambodians are very helpful and well-meaning.
  13. The dogs are seriously noisy at night. I knew this already, but I still am amazed by the sounds they produce. There’s one in my neighbourhood that sounds like a horse.
  14. Some drivers don’t put their lights on at night so ghosts won’t follow them home.
  15. It’s illegal to drive with your lights on in the daytime.
  16. Some Khmer believe that you shouldn’t whistle in the dark, because you’re inviting spirits to join you.
  17. Another superstition is that if you see dogs having, er, intercourse, you get conjunctivitis or can go blind. This one is particularly difficult because they roam around everywhere and are randy little things.
  18. Apparently, dogs bark differently if it’s a person or a ghost. Maybe that’s what the horse sound is about.